The first Freedom Ride departs from Washington, D.C.

On May 4, 1961, a group of thirteen young people departs Washington, D.C.’s Greyhound Bus terminal, bound for the South. Their journey is peaceful at first, but the riders will meet with shocking violence on their way to New Orleans, eventually being forced to evacuate from Jackson, Mississippi but earning a place in history as the first Freedom Riders.

Two Supreme Court rulings, Morgan v. Virginia and Boynton v. Virginia, forbade the racial segregation of bus lines, and a 1955 ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed the practice of using “separate but equal” buses. Nonetheless, bus lines in the South continued to abide by Jim Crow laws, ignoring the federal mandate to desegregate, for years. The Congress of Racial Equality, with assistance from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, decided to protest this practice by sending white and Black riders together into the South, drawing inspiration both from recent sit-ins and the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, in which activists attempting to desegregate buses were imprisoned in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws.

READ MORE: Mapping the Freedom Riders’ Journey Against Segregation

The riders who boarded the buses on May 4 were mostly students, and several were teenagers. Among them was 21-year-old John Lewis, who would go on to co-organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and represent a Georgia district containing most of Atlanta in Congress for 33 years. Trained in nonviolence, they sat in mixed-race pairs on the buses in order to make a statement about integration while deterring violence. When they reached Rock Hill, South Carolina, however, Lewis was badly beaten, and things got worse as they approached Birmingham, Alabama. In Anniston, outside of Birmingham, a crowd of local Klansmen attacked one of the buses, setting it ablaze and sending several riders to the hospital. Local police fired warning shots in the air to dispel the riot, although it has since been revealed that they had privately assured the Klan they would give them time to carry out an attack before intervening. In Birmingham, more Klansmen beat the riders with baseball bats and bicycle chains as the local police, led by the notorious Bull Connor, stood down. 

The original Freedom Riders finally abandoned their plan to reach New Orleans and were evacuated from Jackson, Mississippi, but even as the first ride came to an end more Freedom Riders were beginning theirs. Over the course of the summer, over 400 people took part in dozens of Freedom Rides followed in their footsteps. Like the first Riders, they were often met with violence and arrested, but their actions drew national attention to the brutality of white supremacy and the flagrance with which Southern states, businesses, and law enforcement continued to disregard federal law and finally won true desegregation of the buses.

Listen to HISTORY This Week Podcast: Freedom Rides Down Under

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A lawmaker introduces the pun “May the Fourth be with you” on the floor of U.K. Parliament

On May 4, 1994, in a groan-inducing moment on the floor of U.K. Parliament, a lawmaker uses a pun that will spawn its own holiday far, far away from the halls of government.

“May the 4th is an appropriate date for a defense debate. My researcher, who is a bit of a wit, said that it should be called ‘National Star Wars Day,’” said Harry Cohen, then a Member of Parliament from Leyton, an area of East London. “He was talking about the film Star Wars rather than President Reagan’s defense fantasy, and he added, ‘May the fourth be with you.’ That is a very bad joke; he deserves the sack for making it, but he is a good researcher.”

Cohen, of course, was referring to “May the Force be with you,” the guiding principle of the heroes in the wildly popular Star Wars movies, a franchise which was then just three films.

The pun (which may or may not have been original to Cohen’s staff) has been repeated countless times since, to the extent that May 4 is now recognized as Star Wars Day by Lucasfilm, Disney and fans around the world.

Fueled by memes and photos on the internet, fans began organizing “Star Wars Day” events in the 2010s—one of the first appears to have been at the Toronto Underground Cinema in 2011. Having acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise in 2012, Disney began observing Star Wars Day the following year, with special events and releases marking the occasion.

2015 marked the first known celebration of Star Wars Day in space, when astronauts aboard the International Space Station watched Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Rather than limit their celebration to just one day, fans may choose to observe “Revenge of the Fifth” the day after Star Wars Day, although many hold that “Revenge of the Sixth” is a better pun.

READ MORE: The Real History That Inspired ‘Star Wars’

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The U.S. officially begins construction on the Panama Canal

A ceremony on May 4, 1905 marks the official beginning of the second attempt to build the Panama Canal. This second attempt to bridge the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans will succeed, dramatically altering world trade as well as the physical and geopolitical landscape of Central America.

For decades before it was attempted, merchants and engineers fixated on the idea of creating a passage through Central America for ocean-going vessels, sparing them thousands of nautical miles and the dangerous trip around Cape Horn. A French company was the first to attempt building such a canal, but the results were disastrous: roughly 20,000 workers perished due to accidents and tropical diseases, and the company collapsed without coming close to completing the canal. 

In 1902, the United States Congress passed the Spooner Act, authorizing the acquisition of the defunct French company. After failing to reach a deal with Colombia to dig the canal, the Unites States backed separatists in the Isthmus of Panama, leading to the birth of a new nation as well as the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land 10 miles wide along the route of the canal over which the United States would hold jurisdiction.

WATCH: Modern Marvels: Panama Canal Supersized on HISTORY Vault

On May 4, 1905, dubbed “Acquisition Day,” the project became official. The Americans largely avoided the mistakes that had doomed the French project. Engineers used dams to create an inland lake, connected to the oceans by locks, rather than building a sea-level canal all the way across the isthmus. In addition to creating Gatún Lake, then the largest artificial lake in the world, the project also required the blasting of the Galliard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut, an artificial gorge which was dynamited out of the rock of the Continental Divide so that the canal could flow through.

In October of 1913, nearly 10 years after construction had resumed, a telegraph from President Woodrow Wilson triggered the detonation of a dike and the flooding of the Culebra Cut, joining the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific. The following August, the Panama Canal officially opened, immediately altering patterns of world trade in ways comparable only to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. 

Accidents, disease and the extremely hot conditions killed 5,609 workers over the decade it took to complete the canal. The United States remained the de facto sovereign of the canal and the Canal Zone until 1979 when, under President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. agreed to transfer management of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.

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“Sip-In” takes place at Julius’ Bar in New York City

On the afternoon of April 21, 1966, a bar crawl in New York’s West Village leads to an important early moment in the gay liberation movement. In what will be dubbed the “Sip-In,” Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and John Timmons publicly identify themselves as gay and demand to be served anyway, challenging the unofficial but widespread practice of banning gay customers from bars.

Although the gay community in New York grew and established numerous clandestine hubs over the course of the 1950s and ’60s, they were still met with open contempt at most bars, restaurants, and nightclubs in the city. Gay men were often accused of “disorderly conduct” simply for being gay and thrown out of bars even though there was no law against homosexuality or serving gays. These were acts of bigotry, but also self-preservation, as the NYPD routinely raided and shut down bars where gays were known to congregate. It was not uncommon for bars to put up signs with messages like “If you are gay, please stay away,” or the slightly subtler “Patrons Must Face the Bar While Drinking,” a coded warning against men trying to pick up other men.

READ MORE: How the Mob Helped Establish NYC’s Gay Bar Scene

Leitsch, Rodwell, and Timmons—later joined by Randy Wicker—were members of the Mattachine Society, a group that tried to break the taboo around homosexuality and present themselves as clean-cut model citizens to combat homophobia and carve out a place in the public sphere for openly gay men. Borrowing an idea from the civil rights movement, they decided to sit down at various bars in Lower Manhattan, announce that they were gay and refuse to leave without being served. The trio was kicked out of the first bar before they arrived—a reporter they had tipped off beat them to the bar and spilled the beans to the bartender, who closed his bar rather than serve them. The group proceeded to two more bars, telling their servers they were gay, and each instance ended with a discussion with the manager and free drinks for the activists. “I’m starting to feel drunk,” Timmons recalled telling his friends. “We better get this done already.”

They finally made their stand at Julius’ Bar, a spot popular with the gay community. The bartender put a glass down in front of Leitsch as he approached the bar, only to place his hand over it after Leitsch announced that he was gay. A newspaper photographer captured the moment, and the Sip-In became legend. Some accounts of the Sip-In hold that the bartender at Julius’ was playing along with the Mattachine in order to help them attract publicity, while others claim that Julius’, though usually gay-friendly, denied the men their drinks because it had been raided by the police just a few days before.

Although its legacy would be dwarfed by the Stonewall Riots, which began in the same neighborhood three years later, the Sip-In did cause a stir. News of the event prompted an official announcement from the chairman of the New York State Liquor authority, affirming that there was nothing in state law about denying service to gays, and a ruling from New York’s Commission on Human Rights that one could not be denied service simply for being homosexual. Across the river in New Jersey, the Mattachine began suing bar owners who denied them service the following year, winning a state Supreme Court ruling that, while labelling gays “unfortunates,” held that “their status does not make them criminals or outlaws.”

READ MORE: The Gay ‘Sip-In’ that Drew from the Civil Rights Movement to Fight Discrimination

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Supreme Court declares desegregation busing constitutional

On April 20, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declares busing for the purposes of desegregation to be constitutional. The decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education settled the constitutional question and allowed the widespread implementation of busing, which remained controversial over the next decade.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education officially banned racial segregation in American schools, but the end of formal segregation did not lead to a new era of total integration. Many previously segregated schools in the South remained desegregated in name only throughout the ’50s and ’60s, and the de facto segregation of neighborhoods across the nation meant that many technically-desegregated school districts had little or no racial diversity. Many city governments closed certain schools that were liable to become racially mixed and built new ones in more homogenous areas, creating new schools that were effectively segregated in order to avoid integrating old ones. Additionally, the “white flight” phenomenon saw many white families leave the cities for less-diverse suburbs, or move their children from integrated public schools to all-white private or parochial schools.

Thus, ten years after Brown, fewer than 5 percent of Black children in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District attended integrated schools. The city government’s solution was busing, the practice of intentionally moving children to schools outside of their school districts in order to desegregate. When the NAACP sued Charlotte on behalf of a six-year-old boy, James Swann, Judge James McMillan ruled in their favor, upholding the constitutionality of busing and ordering the city to begin moving students from inner-city Charlotte to schools in suburban Mecklenburg, and vice-versa. White parents were incensed, sending McMillan death threats, burning him in effigy, and forming the Concerned Parents Association, which launched an unsuccessful boycott of the public school system and ran a slate of anti-busing candidates for local office.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which unanimously sided with the NAACP on April 20, 1971. The ruling allowed cities across the country to adopt busing, although a 1974 ruling restricted busing to districts that could be proven to have enacted discriminatory policies. From the Deep South to Boston to California, busing policies led to pushback and sometimes violence from white parents, and while many localities did achieve the goal of racial integration, the legacy of busing is still a controversial topic. By the end of the 20th century, busing had all but vanished thanks to legal challenges and local governmental decisions. Although critics argue that busing was unfair to all involved, placing a burden on the Black children it was meant to help, a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University conducted in the early 2000s found that desegregation in American schools had regressed back to the same levels as the mid-’60s, and that the integration of public schools had peaked in 1988.

READ MORE: What Led to Desegregation Busing—And Did It Work?

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First Japanese immigrant arrives in the U.S.

Called the U.S.’s first ambassador to Japan, a 14-year-old fisherman by the name of Manjiro is considered America’s first Japanese immigrant, arriving in the country on May 7, 1843, by way of a whaling ship.

According to the National Endowment of the Humanities, the boy and his crew were caught in a violent storm, with their ship eventually washing up on a desert island 300 miles away from their coastal Japanese village. Rescued five months later by an American whaling ship, Manjiro was adopted by American Capt. William Whitfield, who renamed him John Mung and brought him back to the states to his home in Massachusetts.

Manjiro eventually returned to Japan, where he was named a samurai and worked as a political emissary between his home country and the West, the NEH reports.

According to the National Museum of American History, it was about 20 years later, in the 1860s, when groups of Japanese immigrants began arriving in the Hawaiian islands, where they worked in sugarcane fields. From there, many relocated to California, Washington and Oregon.

From 1886 to 1911, the Library of Congress adds, 400,000-plus Japanese women and men immigrated to America, particularly to Hawaii and the West Coast. In commemoration with Manjiro’s early arrival, Congress, in 1992, established May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

READ MORE: Asian American Milestones: Timeline

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Breonna Taylor is killed by police in botched raid

Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician, is shot and killed by police in her Louisville, Kentucky apartment after officers busted through her door with a battering ram .

Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, both of whom had no criminal records, had been asleep in bed. Walker, who later stated he feared an intruder had broken in, used his legally owned gun to fire one shot, which wounded Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the leg. Mattingly and officers Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison, all white and in plainclothes, returned fire, blindly shooting 32 times in the dark, striking Taylor six times.

According to The New York Times, Louisville police had received a court-approved no-knock warrant to search the apartment for signs of drug trafficking while investigating Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover. Those orders were changed to “knock and announce” before the raid, the newspaper reports. The police involved stated they complied with the warrant, but Walker said he heard no such announcement.

“Somebody kicked in the door, shot my girlfriend,” Walker told a dispatcher in a call to 911.

The three officers were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Walker was arrested for attempted murder of a police officer, a charge that was dropped May 22, as the FBI, Department of Justice and Kentucky attorney general began their own investigations, according to the Times. No drugs were found in the apartment.

Following an internal investigation, Hankison was fired by the Louisville Metro Police Department June 23 for violating procedure and was indicted by a grand jury on September 23 on three counts of wanton endangerment, as bullets he fired entered a neighboring apartment with people inside. He pleaded not guilty. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron told the grand jury that Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in returning fire. No charges were brought against either man.

Following Taylor’s death and subsequent national protests, including a viral social media campaign with the hashtag #SayHerName and outcries from celebrities, civil rights activists and political leaders, no-knock warrants were banned in Louisville in an ordinance known as “Breonna’s Law.” The city also agreed to pay her family a historic $12 million in a wrongful-death lawsuit settlement. 

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Chanel No. 5 perfume launches

On May 5, 1921, a date of symbolic importance to its iconic creator, the perfume Chanel No. 5 officially debuts in Coco Chanel’s boutique on the Rue Cambon in Paris. The new fragrance immediately revolutionized the perfume industry and remained popular for a century.

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was the daughter of a clothing peddler and a laundrywoman. She learned to sew in the convent where her father sent his three daughters after the death of their mother when Coco was only 11. From these humble beginnings, she quickly established herself on the fashion scene when her lover, a wealthy textile magnate named Étienne Balsan, helped her set up her first boutique. By 1921, Chanel was a celebrated clothing designer and socialite, known both for wildly popular, groundbreaking clothing designs and for her high-profile romances and larger-than-life public image.

It was one such romance that led to the creation of Chanel No. 5—while vacationing in the South of France with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, an exiled Russian nobleman who had taken part in the killing of Grigori Rasputin, Chanel met the perfumer Ernest Beaux. She began to work with him on a fragrance that would bear her name, allegedly challenging him to create a scent that would “smell like a woman, not like a rose.” According to legend, Beaux or his assistant accidentally added an “overdose” of aldehydes—chemicals that helped a scent last longer but which were used sparingly by perfumers of the time, who preferred natural ingredients and fruity scents—to one of the samples he prepared for Chanel. A number of reasons have been posited as to why Chanel settled on this scent: many argue that the aldehydes reminded her of soap, a scent that took her back to her mother’s laundry, while others hold that she picked the fifth sample of a batch that Beaux offered because of her lifelong obsession with the number five. Chanel later said the concoction “was what I was waiting for…a woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.” The fragrance would officially debut, along with her new collection, on the fifth day of the fifth month of 1921.

Even before it debuted, Chanel No. 5 caused a stir. Chanel hosted a party for some of her most fashionable friends, sprayed the perfume around the table, and, according to legend, was asked about the scent by every woman who passed by. The fragrance was an immediate hit, considered to be “cleaner” than many of the most common perfumes but also more “mature” and adult, in keeping with Chanel’s public image. Now considered by many to be the first modern perfume, Chanel No. 5 is as recognizable and enduring as Chanel’s most famous clothing designs, and the designer herself.

READ MORE: Coco Chanel’s Secret Life 

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Broadway goes dark due to COVID-19 pandemic

On March 12, 2020, after New York state and city leaders placed coronavirus-related restrictions on gatherings of more than 500 people, the Broadway theater district announces it will go dark for an unprecedented 32 days. The longest shutdown for the artistic mainstay in its history, the closure would end up being extended to the end of May 2021, potentially adding up to billions in tourism losses.

High risk factors for theaters, according to The New York Times, included a typically older audience, often rife with tourists, along with cramped seating and an inability to practice social distancing in those spaces.

“There’s no such thing as social distancing for actors—our jobs sometimes require that we go to work and kiss our colleagues eight times a week,” actress Kate Shindle, president of the Actors’ Equity Association labor union told the newspaper. “Although nobody wanted to close the theaters, at the same time people were starting to be scared to work, and with good reason.”

Thirty-one productions were showing on Broadway when the ban took effect, and a handful, including Disney’s musical version of Frozen and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, were closed permanently due to the closure.

Previously, the longest the district was dark was 25 days in 1975 during a musicians’ strike. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Broadway was shuttered for two business days. 

Read all our pandemic coverage here

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President Trump addresses the nation on COVID-19; announces travel ban

In a primetime Oval Office address, President Donald Trump announces a 30-day travel ban on foreign travel to the U.S. from most European countries as COVID-19 cases surge across the globe.

Trump’s TV address came the same day the World Health Organization officially declared the disease a pandemic. U.K. travelers were not included in the restrictions, nor were American citizens or their immediate family members or legal permanent U.S. residents.

A week later, the State Department issued an advisory that U.S. citizens avoid all international travel because of the pandemic and that those abroad should return home immediately.

As of late February 2021, there were more than 28 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and more than 500,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control

READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History 

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